On a plane to the Maldives, tourists sigh about the luxury resorts and sun-dappled beaches to which they are bound. From above, the country's coral-fringed lagoons in the Indian Ocean look computer-generated: arrayed in turquoise pods, they stretch over an azure expanse that would span from Rome to Budapest. Ibn Battuta, the 14th century Arab explorer, hailed the archipelago as "one of the wonders of the world." Ever since, the Maldives has enchanted shipwrecked sailors, Hollywood celebrities and Russian oligarchs fortunate enough to wash up by its shores. Yet beneath this outsiders' vision of paradise lurks a more troubled reality one shaped by 30 years of a suffocating dictatorship that ended only last year.
No one knows this better than Mohamed Nasheed, the nation's new democratically elected President, who unseated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives' ruler since 1978, in a landmark election last October. In 1991, Nasheed was named an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, a victim of repeated government crackdowns on dissidents. Though he is tight-lipped about the particulars of his own ordeal, testimony from many other detainees tells of men dunked into the sea, forced to eat glass, kept in solitary confinement or left exposed in the sun for days, or doused in molasses and tied to palm trees, at the mercy of the inevitable insect swarm. "It was God's will that I didn't die," says Nasheed of his experience as a political prisoner, in an interview with TIME at his presidential office. "They wanted me to capitulate, but I just couldn't do it."
Now, 41-year-old Nasheed says he is determined to secure liberal democracy in the Maldives. He sees the dissident struggle he helped wage in the Maldives, an orthodox Sunni nation, as a lightning rod for change in the Muslim world. But there are more pressing challenges at home. The Maldives boasts South Asia's highest GDP per capita, but the figure is inflated by the country's significant tourism revenues, which do not trickle down to everyone. Some 40% of the Maldives' population still earns less than $2 a day. And Maldivian youth are in the middle of a drug epidemic that, proportionate to the nation's population, may be one of the worst in the world. The legacy of Gayoom's rule lingers, and the process of unraveling it will last far longer than Nasheed's current five-year term. Entire political institutions a free press, an independent judiciary, a multiparty legislature are emerging where there were none.
The Swelling Sea
As if all that was not enough, the archipelago nation faces a more elemental challenge. It could find itself submerged, its fragile coastline and coral reefs facing extinction as sea levels swell. "We are sitting on a time bomb," says Abdul Azeez, a leading Maldivian environmentalist. For a nation of so small a size (the Maldives' population is less than 400,000), the new government's task is monumental. "It is as if, in the same country, both Saddam Hussein was toppled and the Berlin Wall fell," says Ahmed Naseer, a painter and dissident who lived in exile in Sri Lanka with Nasheed. It falls to the new President a slight, erudite former journalist who peppers conversation with quotes from Dostoyevsky and Dante to save the Maldives from sinking under the weight of its problems. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of scientists, forecasts that sea levels will rise an estimated 2 ft. (60 cm) this century, enough to inundate a good portion of the country, many of whose 1,200 isles sit just 3 ft. (1 m) above the ocean. "For us, fear of sinking is no different than the fear of persecution," says Ali Rilwan, head of Bluepeace, a local environmentalist group.
With that in mind, Nasheed announced a contingency plan late last year that titillated the foreign press. From its tourist revenues, the Maldives would set aside a chunk of money each year. It would combine that with aid from richer nations and the Commonwealth, and build a sovereign fund that could one day go toward purchasing new territory for the country's climate refugees in far bigger nations like India or Australia. "At the end of the day, we are talking about needing dry land," says Nasheed bluntly. "It is a myth to assume that humanity has always been stationed in the same place."